Materials don’t matter. Techniques, learned tricks what paper or canvas or paint one uses are all fine and good as far as they go but none of this matters overmuch in the grand scheme of a career making art for a living. Not really. A $5 hammer bangs the nail in just as effectively as a $50 one when you get right down to it. The online persona or con-fame and interview-notoriety are all well and good as far as they may aid in the marketing of the work, but really at the end of the day, what really matters is The Work. Turns out placing your full intention to The Work and not getting lost in the persona or the tools has a lot to teach us, and brings more growth and aid to this life than you might expect. If you manage to set up tent squarely in The Work, you’ll find it grows your craft, expands your scope, makes you a happier and healthier artist and navigates your career in professional forums in ways no other place in your art life can offer. The Work itself can and should be your dance partner in your art life, your first and longest lasting marriage. And like any relationship there are good and bad to contend with, but reconciling yourself with the work you’re making has infinitely more benefits to your life and career than you might guess. Get yourself rooted fully and firmly in The Work you make and stay there, and I guarantee it will be the engine that drives your art life to the best possible places, wherever that may go.
Here’s what I mean:
IN THE WORK, LIES FREEDOM
The Work is neutral territory. It’s a place where you can experiment and learn and grow in ways few other opportunities in this life offer. The Work unto itself doesn’t;t give a whit if you had a bad night’s sleep, were shitty to your husband, or made a bad joke in public the other day. The Work has one thing at its center above all else by miles: THE WORK. To abide in this place as an artist is absolutely essential to growing forward in the best and most effective possible way as an artist. It is the most challenging and contentious of places, but it is also the most safe to learn to grow and be free to explore your imagery, techniques and self as an artist. If you’re career isn’t about the Work, then it won’t hold, won’t reward and won’t last. Rooting yourself in technique dooms you to being a craftsman, not an artist. Rooting yourself in yourself as an artist and the public persona of it drains growth and exploration form the work you’re supposed to be there to explore and maybe exhibit. All other aspects of the Work outside of itself can be a pair of golden handcuffs at the best of scenarios, and none of them can bring you the thing you need to grow and becomes successful at making art as a lifestyle choice- whether you do it for a living or any other reason. The Work opens all the doors, the other stuff closes them.
THE WORK CHECKS THE EGO
I would;d posit that it takes a terrific amount of hubris to get up in the morning and decide to spend your day making pictures that should unto themselves matter to someone else. And we need this act of arrogance to make it so- but the attending ego that’s required to do this doesn’t;t have to drive the car if you keep The Work you’re making at its center. Your ego might get you there, but it won’t win the race. Your ego might thrive off of however many Instagram followers you have, or art trophies you collect or praise or whatever, but it won’t make better work and in fact if left alone or as the primary source, will kill the art in the long run. When you root yourself in The Work, your arrogance is checked. Yours elf importance is neutralized, and overpraise has no hold over you. The cycle of being heralded and scorned or forgotten and the joy/sadness rollercoaster this kind of thing can enjoin in your day at making art are made small by The Work. And because of this, when you make the Work your seat of power, you are not enslaved by the temptations and naval gazing all that stuff can give you. The Work nourishes, the rest is at best a sugar high with a big hangover to follow. This is largely where the idea of art-trophies, particularly the grand ballroom ceremonies for me get tricky: They become about the artist that made the art rather than the art itself. Awards cantle help themselves in this way- its what they are and there’s nothing at all wrong with enjoying them… up to a point. Everyone deserves a pat on the back and praise from your peers and community and at their best, this is exactly what art awards are. But they can so easily become celebritizing ego-bombs and make you forget that the only signify the work you’ve already done, and not the artist you are today or the Work you’ll make tomorrow.
When you’re rooted in the Work criticism holds less a grip on your heart, praise also doesn’t;t overinflated you past propriety and blinded self-awareness. The point is not to be an art star, ( or god forbid the most turgid phrase ever uttered in our field, “Celebrity Artist”), the point is to make good work. The Work doesn’t;t care how famous or unknown you are- the Work just cares about the work., The rest, if it is to follow will or won’t. but none of it matters. Not truly. And if it comes to you and you are truly rooted in The Work, then you will be able to navigate that dynamic much more deftly and successfully than if you came from any other aspect of the art you’re making. We’re tricked by the egoism of our internet age to think value equals likes or thumbs up or whatever dumb shorthand thing we’ve invented to denote praise and value. It’s all fine and good but only when it’s a tangental aspect to the life in art you’re living.
THE WORK MAKES THE BEST OF FAILURE
You’re going to blow it. We all do at one point or another no matter where not he ladder metaphor of art career you find yourself. Fuck ups will happen. I would argue that making good work not only invites the possibility of failure, it ensures it. We as a species are simply built to learn almost nothing from success but everything from failing. Getting it wrong is simply how you figure your way forward towards getting it right. And if you do it correctly, you get to do it again. And then again. If you keep your center in The Work, it’s the Works that fails, not you. Itlimits the perusal culpability and allows you to have a clear line of sight on how best to improve the Work for next time, or even fix the screw up that’s making the Work not work in the first place. If you stay fixed in the arena of The Work you can skip a lot of the depression and anger and self doubt storms that cause you to stop working, or at least navigate you through the storms of those inevitable times more swiftly. Because its what’s on the other side of those feelings that can teach you how to avoid its repeat later. The failure isn’t you its the Work and the Work can be fixed far more easily than the complex bowl of spaghetti that is you.
THE WORK PROMOTES STRONGER PARTNERSHIPS
Every partnership I’ve experienced lives or dies in the success or failure of where the two parties place their priority. If both sides plant themselves in The Work, success is increased twofold. If any or either root their main ethic in any other place, the partnership is inevitably doomed. You can be the best of friends and after a time becomes the worst of enemies from this. You can also be perfect strangers to each other and become lifelong partners in the The Work and in life itself.
One aspect of partnership is working with an Art Director, Editor, Collector/Commissioner or any other partner in creating the work and making it sing. If you’re both about the Work, the struggles and edits become less personal and more about the piece, making the piece better and removing animus towards each other from the process. I’ve gotten notes that have made me emotional and hurt and furious, even from Art Directors I love. Rejection stings and in that moment of pain, your ego screams out for retribution. The Work however demands otherwise and this is why, if you give any bad moment a night’s sleep to reflect on it fresh the next day, the mountain it seems to insist it is, turns out to be a mere bump. And life as not when you give The Work its time to have its truth whisper past the rage storm, you’ll find a way past the difficulty that you may have otherwise been completely blind to. If a book cover job collapses and you’re fired, staying rooted in The Work gives you permission to let it go and move on to the next thing and still maintain the partnership with your editor/AD for another project down the road. The Work allows you to see that even if you don’t agree with an editorial note, you can spot why it might not be communicating properly and thereby help invent another unconsidered road free of the difficulty. There’s insight in and through the Work. Be ready to make note of it.
The same is largely true of creative partnerships. More so even. I’ve had I think four or five adult creative partnerships in my life and career and the two that survived and continue, one in particular all have succeeded on the back of keeping our center in The Work over anything else. The ones that failed all failed for exactly not doing this. They died from infighting or disagreement that became personal, money issues that incited greed or a sense of deprivation, and unlike a marriage, (of which a creative partnership share a LOT in common with), one side can kill it without any help from the other. It’s why I always insist both sides at the beginning of any partnership enjoin under the banner of common rules and purpose right away. If you can’t agree on the basic principles on the first date, the other dates are doomed. Guaranteed. Even as your successful creative partnership grows, and becomes a deeply rooted friendship or ventures firmly into what can be only described as family, when you work together in the place of The Work, and still maintain this, it only becomes more fruitful, fun and rewarding. You’ll hit hard times, disagreements, and calamity, but if you both come from a place where Thew Work is at the center, you’ll navigate it more smoothly and might even come out of it in a better place than if it had been smooth sailing along the way. Failing forward requires that the ethic be in The Work- it’s otherwise utterly impossible to accomplish this.
The Work encourages you and allows you to seek out partnerships with other creatives that are better than you, and should. I cannot encourage you more to chase this. There is always someone else out there better than you are at what they do and if you can dispel with your own ego through The Work, and makes yourself present and receptive to what you can learn grown and yes, even contribute to the partnership, the better the Work is and the better you will be for the next thing you do together or alone later. We get stuck when we forget that our work is in the short term about the piece in front of us, but in the long game, always about the next thing we do. Each experience should add to your quiver of arrows for the next battle and if your partnership doesn’t;t make you a better artist, or the Work better as a result… well, time to rethink that partnership.
IN THE WORK LIES FORGIVENESS
We all have bad patches in our life- and our complicated lives can negatively affect our Work. Divorce, disease, tragedy, addiction, or any and all personal crises can blow deadlines get you fired from jobs, make you behave poorly and all of these can look to end a career as a result. In the theme of fucking up, sometimes you can make a career stumble. Say something dopey in public or create a piece that causes some terrible backlash. Even if you get caught dipping into plagiarism when you were aiming for something else, become part of a book’s public disaster for being on its cover and thereby being that disaster’s face… when you keep to making good Work, even through these terrible cataclysmic times, you can survive it all and keep going. I know more artists than not who’ve been through some calamity in their lives or work, either publicly or privately, that seemed to set them off the cliff forever, only to come back later having survived it. The one thing they all have in common? The Work. If you get a rep in the business for being an asshole, or never keeping a deadline or not being able to get along with others in a creative venture, even the worst behavior can be forgiven if the Work remains strong. (And I would argue still, if you’re truly planted int he work, much of those self-inflicted disasters can be avoided altogether). We all know artists who are legendarily unreliable, difficult and cantankerous but keep finding themselves getting jobs and still seeing periods of success. Why? The Work. Publishers at the end of the day will forgive most sins and difficulties if the Work you do, does its job well and successfully. It’s a business after all and and being a dick, might not help with your forward movement, but if the work sings, it matters a hell of a lot less than if you’re not showing that same rooted value. There is redemption and forgiveness in The Work if you allow for it. It’s not easy nor should it be, but its there regardless if you’re in the right place to make use of it.
THE WORK CAN BE THERAPEUTIC
Its always always always a mistake to use art for you’re own personal therapy, but that isn’t to say the Work can’t be supremely therapeutic. Yes there is self discovery in The Work. Yes through The Work, personal growth, issues pain and personal baggage can find a forum for healthy processing and growth… but this only works inadvertently. Frida Kahlo processed through her paintings a lot of pain and life long tragedy, but when she sat down to paint, it was always about The Work at hand. The painting in front of her. They function because they work, not because of what they necessarily they do for her. The impetus of work going in as personal is fine and dandy, the aftermath of how that work and the process of the piece affects your understanding of an issue within or without yourself, can be sublime. However, while you are working, in this middle time between the before and after, if it’s not about The Work in front of you as a primary locus, the piece will fail and the effort to self-understand can be muddled or lost.
This is even more true in narrative art- the tendency to express therapeutic experiences can be a powerful lodestone to tap into to craft realistically meaningful stories and characters, no doubt. But using a story to fix something within the creator doesn’t;t usually bode very well. I’ve made dozens of pieces and my current graphic novel with Ethan Hawke, MEADOWLARK, is almost all about the personal pathos and our collective experiences as father’s to teenage boys, our own aging, and desires to succeed as creatives, but when we sit down to make the book, write the script, edit and draw the pages that tell its story, all that flies off and it’s about The Work in front of us. The sacred cows are slaughtered, new ideas come in to make a scene function better, or dialogue that delivers a needed moment are improved and whatever therapy we gain from the experience elater is a distant second to making sure that the current truth of The Work is maintained. I lost over a hundred pages of a graphic novel I started and walked through deeply as a means of dealing with issues of my own personal childhood. This book has been seen by no one because, thankfully at some point I realized it was a train grinding on rails without wheels and would never go an inch further. Even when I tried to rejoin all that work about a decade later to see if there was a way to electrify this terrible Frankenstein’s monster of a book, I could not. The endemic failure in attempting to make of this work of art into therapy metastasized its failure into nearly every cell of it. Sure there’s a lot of good drawings in there and powerful moments even of value… but there will never be enough lightening in the universe to bring life into this corpse because instead of it being about The Work, it was about me, my ego, my personal private issues…. and no one gives a rat’s ass about your private foibles unless you can craft from them, through The Work, a way to tell their story in a manner that’s relatable and meaningful to someone else, regardless of whether they share the selfsame detriments.
THE WORK LIKES THE WORK
It’s the most obvious and elusive aspect of our thing, but there it is. The Work makes better work and that good time makes you want to revisit that experience again. We’ve all been in a rut where we can’t draw for shit, or seem to be void of any good ideas, and for my part at least, I have never found myself making anything good while there and only have pulled myself through those periodic times of shadow by getting out from under it and carving some small place there or some other task where success can be achieved where the Work can return to its rightful and joyful place to make more good work. As I stated before in a prior article, THE MYTH OF THE MUSE, inspiration only seems to really come when it knows where to find you. If you find yourself at Work consistently, and repeatedly, even when you’re just in the studio reading a book, or playing Galaga, the lightening can strike. be available to it and it will avail itself to you as well. The Work wants to work, and wants to express itself. It is at times an entity unto itself and the more intimate I find in getting with that exercise, the more seemingly other the Work can be. The best way past getting stuck in the commands that success you towards repetition or failure towards self doubt and hesitation, is always and foever through The Work. Period.
THE WORK GIVES YOU PERMISSION TO PLAY
And let’s face it, we live in a schizoid culture where play is what we all seek but is also regarded as, on an individual level, meaningless, childish and wastefully unproductive. All good art is an act of play. Not just about you yourself playing but as place to discover and play within itself. The Work can be retitled as Play easily enough as a result of this reality. When you are in the sandbox and letting your imagination go, great epic castles and worlds can be built. If you can enjoin this act of play with a creative partner, the combination of your two joined energies can manifest in a third and epically mighty experience of the Work otherwise impossible to imagine alone. Despite how we ascribe meaning to the word “work” as a negative.. as a thing we do to get through so we can finally enjoy ourselves on the weekend that flows, The Work should as much as it can ever be, an act of play. The joy and excitement of discovery in play fuels The Work. Makes The Work better and fuels more joy. It can be a volcanic experience. And if you work with stories or even a single piece of art, there’s that magical moment when all your various parts and pieces start turning together under their own steam. You become a conductor on a train moving by its own power. A servant of a great house building itself, characters defining their goals and behavior. Your children become men and women with their own lives and start teaching you what they want, what they are there to do and where they want to go. And the surprise that comes form that is I think the source of addiction that has me persistently coming back time and again and for more. Even a bad job that is as joyless as ditch digging or stacking boxes of t-shirts in a factory warehouse, the promise of play at the next gig acts as a lighthouse on foggy stormy seas, and as a result helps me get through them more smoothly and successfully. The promise of play can in and of itself also be an act of play and if you need a Secret Life of Walter Mitty to arm you though your life, and can focus that energy into The Work. You will be unstoppable.
THE WORK HELPS GIVE YOU DISTANCE, AND CARE MORE
We must both care and not care at all at strategic moments in The Work if we are to ever be successful and make good work. Seeking approval is normal and not necessarily pathological at all times, but not caring for it as you work is essential It’s frankly easier for men than women in this regard. Women are trained since birth to seek being liked and men celebrated more for seeming not to care, and both are made troubled by this disparity. The Work can help you avoid making a painting that seeks approval or connects with whatever fashionable theme is out there at the moment. Pleasing others can be a side effect of The Work, but it should never be its purpose, any more than shocking people or turning them off. Using likable things, hateful imagery, controversial subjects as tools for the work is one thing, seeking them out to be relevant, to gain internet followers, stir political controversy or manipulate others for the sake of ego or power aggrandizement is typically and rightfully grotesque as far as reasons go for working. The neutral space in The Work sublimates these tools to keep them in check, and can help you sort the best and most effective places to install them and make them serve the greater and more true purpose of the Work. They can shield you and give you power in how respond to controversy created by the art, allow you to remain the art’s best advocate because it’s not about you personally, but about the Work itself. Perspective requires distance and from here we can through the act of being more divested personally regard the art with a better more healthy eye that can acknowledge where it succeeds and take in challenging notions of where it might fail.
THE WORK GIVES YOUR PERMISSION TO BE SELFISH
This is a sword with two edges. You can turn this towards the negative by using The Work to an excuse for avoiding your family, your friends or other more tricky issues in your life, but you can also utilize it to allow for a permissive place in time and locality to spend time with yourself and grow. Why do I have s operate space on my property to work in? The Work commands I make it so. How can I justify not spending a beautiful sunny day outside garden ing? The Work needs you for other things. The Work can provide you causality for spend fining your food money on art, on new materials and on time that others might spend it on a vacation, or watching some sports game together. It can and is definitionally isolating in that way, but only when we’re alone can we hear ourselves fully. The Work can be a foil towards that goal and exercise. It can provide cover for you to indulge in this in a way that isn’t about excluding you partner, or kids or friends, but be apart from them for a time so that when you return you are better for it and more available for them. Its important to keep this desire in check, easy to over work and to lose yourself int he perspective of selfishness or turning The Work into an avoidance technique. Be careful of that and know it will dip into that when left unleashed. But keep it under control and be ready to let it go where needed and indulge in it when able, and it can be the fuel that moves the engine of your art.
THE WORK IS A MEMBER OF YOUR FAMILY
My wife and I are both artists and so we always joke about that while we we have two human children in our family that need rooms to sleep and be in int he house, we also have our two personal kids and life partners in our work that also demand space to be. Suddenly a family of four needs a few extra bedrooms or studio space outside the home. As artists coming into a marriage with another, you always bring along with you the baggage of prior commitment and wife/husband in your life that must be acknowledged and valued if this new human relationship is to succeed. It’s a part of you that needs to be fed, clothed and cared for like any other. Seeing it as a presence or another person in your family helps keep it in perspective and keep it valued. Even and especially if your work isn’t necessarily bringing home the bacon, it is no less important as an experience you must maintain in your life for your life to have joy and meaning beyond whatever you get in this regard from your spouse or children. Simply put, The Work is people too, and if you can give it a room, carve out a part of your garage of living room to let it live there exclusively the same way you give yourself a bedroom, or your children their own rooms, then by all means do this. Its not always easy and all of us at one time or another have painted in our bedrooms or used the kitchen as a place to create when our crappy apartments can’t be made bigger for space, or our finances don’t allow for an outside studio. You can get there one day and should if you’re able. The Work really does get better for it fi you can get to there. It’s not an accident all these artists whose work you admire either have a devoted workspace or sublimate their own living space to live in their studios. The work demands this food, so feed it.
THE WORK LETS YOU SEE THE WORK
If you root yourself in The Work, it breeds a valuable distance from yourself that can be essential when you talk about your work with others. Whether it’s just over beers with friends at a bar, an interview online, a podcast or a conversation in front of an audience of hundreds of strangers, that perspective and stance allows you to overcome the terror of these moments, forget yourself and be able to explore and express yourself clearly and in a manner that is more interesting and helpful to the audience. I’m a big fan of letting the work speak for itself, but there are times when you really must step in and talk about what you’re doing, why and how. It’s part of the contract, as I see it, to success in art: It’s upon you to return to others what they give, to reach a hand out and help them rise to the landing you’ve found so can all rise together. I am flummoxed always when I have to talk about myself in public but I can vomit word salad for hours and hours when we talk about The Work. I love doing it and find myself energized and inspired by the act as much as I find it exhausting to do it. But being rooted in the Work instead of getting wooed by the self, makes it possible to speak about what you’re doing clearly and get past the fear of performance. I have been on stage speaking to an audience of a thousand once and I’d be lying if it didn’t;t scare thieving crap out of me walking on to that stage as everyone in the room is applauding your arrival and staring at you for something that makes their coming to be there worthwhile. What’s gotten me through those moments and be able to hopefully deliver what the moment demands is to disregard myself entirely and try and be present as the voice for the Work. It manages to help all questions, move past all bumps, and not get lost int he adrenaline fueled excitement of the moment. In the end it also promotes revelations about The Work I would not have otherwise had. If you’re lucky enough to get past the “where do you get your ideas from?” or “When did you know you were an artist? ” type questions, you’ll find that there can be real gems in there and sometimes surprisingly profound questions. As a result whenever I do an interview or particularly when it’s a lecture, I try and get to the Q&A portion as fast as I can because I think it’s that dance with the audience, or the interviewer when The Work is at the center, that the magic can made to spark to life.
THE WORK CAN BE A PASSPORT TO MAGICAL PLACES
I have met my art gods and befriended them through and because of the Work. If I could whisper in the ear of my younger self that I would be able to call friends and peers with the likes of Kent Williams, Jon Muth, Ethan Hawke, George Pratt, Boris Vallejo, Prince, Teddy Kristiansen and a slew of film directors writers and creatives I would literally blow my head off as if I gazed into the Ark of the Covenant itself. All of this contact has come from The Work, all of the feedback and learning and friendship stem from that single wellspring. I would not have had this by chasing them down in a bathroom at Comicon, or stalking them on the internet or screaming them from the streets as I spotted them walking. The Work has brought me to cities I’d not have visited, forged relationships otherwise impossible, and enriched my life in ways I could have never predicted. When I was a kid in Texas being scolded for spending too much time drawing in my room, or being mocked by my friends for not going out drinking when I wanted to read or paint, it was The Work that gifted me with the future I now enjoy, however long it lasts. Not the connections unto themselves or the access one relationship gives to another. When I’ve blown these opportunities I have done so because I got off the mark of the Work and lost myself in some other place less meaningful and true. I was once at a roped off gala thing as a tag along with Ethan when I found myself standing amidst a crowd of famous creatives you that was sort of insane to behold, all of us talking about our families and work experiences and sharing battle stories trying to get a project made and through. It was utterly normal and fun and devoid of the kind of scale of value you might expect. None of us were grabbing our phones to capture the moment and no record was ever made save for that experience itself. When I saw someone barge into it to get a selfie or autograph from one of them, the magic vanished and people scattered. the intrusion of the desire by someone not there for The Work, killed the community we had formed there in that moment. Walls went up, escape rafts were deployed and cover was run for at various speeds and intensity. Nothing has taught me more the value of that access and the need to respect it from the perspective of the Work than that experience. I’m now glad to have seen it happen though I was pissed when it did… but it proved a truth I had maintained only in theory of this borrowed privilege, its value and worth and also what it isn’t and what it doesn’t mean. There’s a cloak of safety in the work that is so fragile and valuable and if you’re lucky enough to get to swim in that gossamer pool, stick to the rules of the currents that lie there and make of it the special experience it can be rather than a thing to boast about later on Instagram or grab a relic of for your scrapbook. In The Work are gifts and presents if you stay there and let them come to you. The Work giveth and The Work taketh away, but if you stick to it as a guiding principle, you’ll come away with something alive and meaningful that could lead to other similar experiences, rather than being alone without any future possibility other that that dumb stolen moment of the selfie you thought was so essential at the time.
THE WORK SHAPES YOUR LIFE IN WAYS YOU CAN’T SEE
If you stay loyal to The Work, its principles and keep it fed like some meaningful tamagotchi hanging around your neck, it grows you in ways you might never have expected. When you touch it, it touches you back and both are changed. This is in many ways why we commune with others and make work at all. For me art requires some level of community involvement. Not true for everyone but for me it’s an abiding principle. It’s why I turned away from the gallery world and chose publishing as a platform to do my work, primarily: More eyes, more audience, less segregation of viewers based on type and income level, etc… As a result it’s caused me to change how I see art, define it and view it. I am different t now than I was when I started working earnestly in art, and I am better for that change. The experiences later in my career have helped me be better at making The Work, and as a person. The Work has proven so many things about my belief in the Work that were previously just theory and hope and have dispelled some misconceptions I thought were bedrock true. They have made me a better father husband and friend and member of my community in ways I never expected and could never have achieved without it. The work you do will change you, it will and and should alter who you are what you want and where you go. If it isn’t you’re simply not doing it right.
The Work may not bring you Happiness but it should bring you Joy. (Joy lasts longer, is a state of being rather than happiness’ fleeting and often costly virtues). At the end of the day Art is something we chose or more often, something we are chosen by. In today’s hyper-narcissistic world, it’s easy to lose the Work and our art in the image we ourselves feel compelled to broadcast. Making the Work not about you at all, is a sublime antidote to this syndrome, that let’s face it, does not bring a hell of a lot of joy or happiness. In art, perspective is all, and where you stand in relationship to it matters above all. It’s a choice you make on an individual level and finding that sweet spot is ultimately going to be a task you take on alone. Keep the Work in your sights and never wither from it, and it will change your life.
- Some of these photos, particularly the few from IMC may not be credited or properly credited- if you took these please let me know here and I can give them their property notation.